An Interview with Robert Panariello
This next interview is with Rob Panariello, a truly great strength coach (member of the USA Strength & Conditioning Coaches Hall of Fame) and physical therpaist that I can’t speak highly enough of. Rob is based in New York and has trained, worked with and learnt from some of the greatest athletes and minds of the modern era. Its an absolute honour to have him on the site as he has been one of my biggest influences, both as a coach and person.
1. Hi Rob, thank you very much for your time, could you outline your background and how you came to be an S & C Coach?
I am a Licensed Physical Therapist, Certified Athletic Trainer, and Strength and Conditioning Coach. I’ve always had an interest in the field of Strength and Conditioning as well as Weight lifting while participating in athletic competition.
At the 1984 NSCA National Convention, I attended a lecture by Dr. Don Chu. Don was kind enough to sit with me and provide some guidance in the field. In fact he offered me a Physical Therapy position at his clinic. That fall he was hired By St. John’s University to work with their basketball team for a week. Don invited me to work with him. It was a great experience as Don is responsible for my knowledge of Plyometrics and other aspects of performance training as well as physical therapy. We’ve been close friends ever since.
The next year I was developing protocols to incorporate the squat exercise in our ACL rehab at my place of employment, the Sports Medicine, Research, and Performance Center at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York. I was speaking to our Director of Sports Medicine, Dr. Russell Warren about this topic. Dr. Warren who at the time, and still is, the team physician for the NY Giants, informed me that the NY Giants just hired a new strength and conditioning coach, Johnny Parker, who was an advocate of the squat exercise. He suggested that I spend time with Johnny to assist with this project. I met Johnny at Giants Stadium and we hit it off becoming very good friends. I worked every off-season with Johnny and the Giants during his tenure with the team. The next year St. John’s University of New York was looking for their first Head Strength and Conditioning Coach and I was fortunate enough to get the job and remain at that institution for 10 years. This how I began my career in the S&C profession.
2. You are a physical therapist, certified athletic trainer, as well as a strength coach and as such, possess a large array of “tools” that most strength and conditioning coaches do not have. How do you feel this particular range of skills aids your work as an S&C professional?
The simplest way to answer this question is that the advantages of both backgrounds “bridge the gap”, from rehabilitation to athletic performance. This has always been my main interest throughout my professional career. My Sports Physical Therapy and Athletic Training background assists in prescribing any necessary training adaptations/modifications that may be necessary for enhanced athletic performance as well as injury prevention during the performance training of an athlete. This is especially true of the post-injured/post-operative athletes, as through the years I have become more and more familiar with the pathology, operative techniques, and rehabilitation procedures that the athlete has experienced.
Part of Sports Rehabilitation is prescribing rehabilitation exercises. The S&C background assists with this component of rehabilitation. Think of it in this manner, if the strongest, fastest, and most powerful athletes in the world are performing specific exercises for performance enhancement, why can’t our patients perform these same exercises? Shouldn’t they perform the same exercises if they are proven to be the best exercises? If they can’t perform the exact exercise(s) due to their pathology, then based on the physical therapy and S&C background, modification of these exercise(s) is possible, enabling the athlete to perform a “variation” of the exercise(s) until the time where the actual exercise(s) can be performed safely. I feel that these two professional fields, Sports Rehabilitation and S&C complement each other very well.
3. Could you give my readers a basic summary of your training methodology?
Without getting too in-depth, my philosophy is based on my belief that the best athletes are the ones who place the greatest amount of force into the ground surface area. These athletes run the fastest and jump the highest, throw the hardest, etc…. In my training programs I utilize exercises and progressions that I feel both best prepares the athlete for the placement of force into the ground surface area, as well as accomplish this specific task. I prefer the performance of total body exercises vs. exercises that isolate a single muscle or muscle group. I am of the opinion that if “isolated” muscle/muscle group exercises are necessary, they are usually incorporated to correct a found deficit, pathological disorder, or abnormality. In my opinion this is not performance training but rehabilitation.
As far as the program design of our athletes, I have more of a concern with exercise volume vs. exercise intensity. This is not to say that I do not have a concern with exercise intensity, but in review of both the research literature and my experiences in both rehabilitation and S&C, I have found that injuries most often occur due to program design errors in prescribed exercise volume. My observations and experiences have formed my opinion that athletes often perform too much work (over train), resulting in excessive fatigue thus setting the athlete up for an eventual breakdown and injury.
4. You spent a substantial amount of time studying strength and conditioning in Eastern Europe. Could you give my readers an insight into what this work entailed and what you gained during this experience?
Like many in these two professions, I strive to be the best Physical Therapist and S&C Professional that I can be. I guess everyone would have their own definition of the word “substantial”, but I did travel to the Eastern Bloc (USSR, East Germany 1987, Bulgaria 1988) to be educated by some of the best coaches and athletes in the world. These trips enabled me, and other U.S. coaches, to observe athletes from the National Weightlifting as well as other National teams of these countries, train on a daily basis. I attended classroom lectures, as well as having one on one extended conversations with some great minds such as Verkhoshansky, Abadjiev, Medvedev, Spassov and others as well.
What methodology, programs, and exercises I could not directly utilize with my athletes (i.e. my athletes were not going to lift/train identically as the Bulgarian National Weightlifting Team) I certainly could adapt to assist in the performance enhancement of my athletes. I also knew that these training methods were believed to be the best as they were based on both scientific evidence and results or they would not be utilized by these National Teams. I also utilize some of this information in the sports rehabilitation setting as well.
In a conversation with Professor Verkhoshansky, truly a great mind, one of the most important pieces of information he stated to me had nothing to do with training. He told me though he had many successes throughout his career; many of his ideas were also unsuccessful. As a young S&C coach at the time, this statement confirmed that it was OK to make mistakes. With all of the changes that have occurred through the past years in Eastern Europe, these trips were truly a once in a lifetime experience.
5. You have worked with a multitude of populations, ranging from professional athletes across a range of sports, to more “general population” physical therapy clients. What have these different experiences been like and how do your training approaches differ depending on the type of population/sport?
I view this as two different questions and will answer each one accordingly. Working with various skilled or less skilled individuals, the differences found in various “dysfunctions” and “deficiencies”, the differences in personalities, as well as the differences in those “genetically gifted”, etc… over the past 30 or so years has lead to what specifically for me is my own “experience”. To assess or evaluate a knee or shoulder of a professional athlete is basically the same process in evaluating the knee or shoulder of a 70 year old recreational golfer. What may be different is the “dysfunction or deficiencies” found during the evaluation, as well the methods utilized to not only correct these deficiencies, but to enhance performance as well. This said you would be surprised what you will find on an evaluation of even the best athlete’s as well as the techniques you may use as to appropriately correct or enhance an athlete’s performance.
I once had a fairly well known NBA basketball player who came to me for performance training. He had knee surgery 6 years earlier and literally had a six inch single leg vertical jump when testing his post-surgical extremity. I initially utilized exercises that I hadn’t used in performance training in quite some time. I also utilized what I would term “rehab” activities as well. This is an example of why I rarely use the term “never”, nor will I ever condemn an exercise, procedure, or methodology, as long as there is a scientific basis to support it. It is unknown when exercises or procedures that are rarely or “never” utilized, will be best suited for use when a coach is placed in a rare, specific difficult situation with their athlete.
To answer the second part of your question, my training approach does not differ for different athletes or populations. I have a training philosophy and stick to that philosophy. What changes is the different individuals’ presentation during the assessment and what is required for success in their particular sport/goals and particular skill level. What are the person’s needs/goals, and how to we achieve them without placing them at risk of injury? Based on this information is how I determine how I will rehab and/or train this athlete/individual. Do not be surprised on the selection of methods and exercises that may be best suited for a specific unexpected situation or presentation.
6. What in your opinion, is the biggest problem you see within the field today?
As many others in our profession have expressed to me, I also feel there are a few problems (as with any profession) with the S&C profession today. One problem is there is no regulation of the profession. I also acknowledge to accomplish this would be very difficult. Anyone without a “quality base knowledge background” can enter the profession. This is not to say we all have to train our athletes or clients in the same manner (i.e. philosophy, exercises, program design, etc…), however, there is no regulation requiring a baseline of appropriate knowledge, based on proven scientific evidence and/or extensive experience prior to entering the field. On many an occasion I have witnessed the application of various philosophies and techniques that are without any scientific basis as the implementation of such techniques was based solely on “opinion”. This is certainly not to say that experience does not play a role in training, but the “substance” of a training program should be, in my opinion, scientifically sound. This is certainly not to say that there are not numerous qualified individuals in the S&C profession, as there certainly are. A baseline of knowledge, based on scientific evidence, will not only enhance training, but minimize the potential injury of an individual as well. Would anyone want a surgeon without a good scientific surgical background, a mechanic without a good mechanical background, etc…? We are professionals as well and it would benefit us as a recognized profession to have a standard of competency.
Performance and training books, DVD’s, etc…, just like textbooks of math, medicine, etc… can be of real value to the profession. This information should also be based on sound scientific proven principles. With the large population interested in S&C, as well as the fitness industry, there is a lot of opportunity to make money in our profession. I personally am not against capitalism as I am also in business for myself. My concern is that some of the products that are available to the profession are solely based on “opinion” and/or the opportunity to make money due to a clever marketing strategy.
The same may be said of the internet. Though there is much outstanding and viable information and products available from many quality individuals and companies, there is also much information provided that is without “substance” and this type of information is usually based on either opinion and/or a marketing strategy based on capital incentive.
Another problem with the internet is that correspondence is usually made with a “user or screen name”. Without knowing an individuals identity, a conversation and advice may be given by a teenager or someone with little knowledge or very limited if any experience in the field and you wouldn’t even know it.
7. Who have been your biggest influences as a coach and a person?
Based on my background in both Sports Rehabilitation and S&C, as well as being in my own business, I’ve had many professionals who have been a positive influence upon me. This is not only in regard to their professional knowledge, but as to who they are as a person and how they conduct themselves as a professional as well. These professionals are in various professions. To name a few:
- As a Person
My father, Mario Panariello, who is the best person that I have ever known.
Dr. Answorth Allen, Dr. David Altchek, Dr. Stephen O’Brien, Dr. Andrew Pearle, Dr. Scott Rodeo, Dr. Russell Warren, Dr. Tom Wickiewicz and Dr. Riley Williams all from the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York, Dr. Nicholas Sgaglione from the North Shore/LIJ Hospital System in New York, and Dr. Claude T. Moorman III at Duke University.
- Physical Therapists
- Athletic Trainers
- S&C Coaches
These individuals were introduced to me either professionally or as my patient where as they all left their influence upon me to progress to solid friendships. I have known the majority of these individuals, who I am proud to call my friends for more than 20 – 25+ years. There are so many others but the list would go on and on.
8. “Corrective Exercise” seems to be the buzzword in the industry at the moment, and it is often loosely used or falsely placed. Where in your opinion does this fit in the training process and how you go about incorporating it into your programs?
My response here could also be part of question number 6. I am a believer in assessment/evaluation, whatever system a professional would like to utilize for this task. The question is, based on this feedback what to do with this information. Many times the “abnormalities” found are genetically responsible for the athlete’s great success. Should these “abnormalities” be corrected, and if they are corrected, will there be consequences instead of the enhancement of performance? There certainly are “abnormalities” that may “set the table” for injury and thus need to be addressed. What to do and when to do it is based on sound scientific knowledge (i.e. anatomy, biomechanics, pathology, etc…) which is imperative in making the appropriate decision.
I am also of the opinion that there is always some type of training that an athlete can perform, even in the presence of an “abnormality” or “pathology”. I have had experiences where various professionals will not let their athlete participate in ANY type of training until ALL “abnormalities” are corrected.
I also have witness the approach of I find “A” then just do “B”. This is not always the case as we as individuals may present with similar symptoms and though test scores may be similar, the treatment or “correction” may have to be different. In the training of an athlete, one drill or exercise that is of a major benefit to one athlete may not have the same effect on a different athlete. The same may be said of techniques of “correction”. This is another example of why education, based on sound scientific principles is very important in the profession.
The S&C professional also has to distinguish what our qualifications and limitations are. When should the S&C professional “correct”, and when should the athlete be sent to an appropriate medical professional? Participating in a weekend course does not make one an “expert”. I think that there are some S&C professionals that take “liberties” and inappropriately take some matters into their own hands.
My advice is to assess your client and based on the needs of the athletes sport, position, and individual goals, progress appropriately based on sound scientific based evidence. If a professional is not comfortable or qualifies in performing such a correction, then they should not perform it. Always know your limitations and surround yourself with other high quality professionals of different professions to handle the situations that we as S&C professionals are not qualified to perform.
9. What are your all-time favorite resources for Strength Training, Rehabilitation, Nutrition, Business, and Random/Recreational?
See question 7.
10. What do you do for your continuing education?
If you haven’t figured it out by now I am a very big proponent of scientifically research based education. I do attend some conferences, but the majority of the conferences I attend are the ones I present at. I think it is important for those new in the field of S&C to attend conferences and be exposed to various philosophies and training techniques so that these “new” professionals can progress with their own beliefs of training based on these experiences. As the S&C Professional becomes more experienced, at that time more “one on one” time with various coaches and individuals of their particular interest should be initiated.
Based on my background I expose myself to both medical and S&C education. My schedule includes attending 3 “Grand Rounds” at 3 different Major Medical Institutions each week. I frequently see patients with physicians of various orthopedic specialties during their office hours. I also perform frequent operating room observations, as knowing how a surgery is performed as well as witnessing the quality of the anatomy which plays a significant role in the rehabilitation and performance training process.
Each summer I attend anatomy lab sessions with hospital residents to review my anatomy, especially when I have acquired different interests and thought processes through previous the year. I travel to spend time with, in my opinion, some of the brightest minds in these professions. I am also fortunate to have established many good friendships and relationships with whom I consider “experts” in the S&C, medical, and business professions and thus many phone calls are also made. I also read as much as I can.
11. What resources would you recommend to young up and coming coaches and/or manual therapists?
I would recommend books, journals, and information on various topics for a “variety” of entertainment and education, as well as literature on specific topics of interest. I would also recommend attendance at conferences of their profession that offer various topics of presentation. Over time as a specific philosophy and method of application are developed, I would read “specific” literature and attend “specific” conferences on the topic(s) of interest. I would also visit the “experts” who practice this specific philosophy and methodology for the advancement of one’s own knowledge, as well as to become more proficient in one’s own skills.
12. If you had to choose one thing that you think people should be including in their training what would that be?
A sound scientific basis of knowledge, know the difference between fact and opinion. That’s certainly not to overlook the role of experience. However, a scientific foundation should not be ignored.
13. What advice would you give young coaches like myself who are looking to excel in S&C?
Expose yourself to as much knowledge and ideas as possible. Know why you are doing something based on evidence, not because someone else is doing it or it’s someone’s own opinion. Communicate appropriately and respect everyone’s philosophy and methodology, even if you do not agree with them. Try to stay away from the word “never”.
14. Rob, thank you so much for your time, it’s a pleasure to have you on the site. Where can my readers find out more about you and any projects that you may have coming up?
Cedric it has been my pleasure. Thank you for your interest. I don’t have a blog where I post my thoughts or work. My company’s website is ProfessionalPT.com. This website will also take your readers to our Performance Center website, ProfessionalPerformance.net.